In humanity’s worst hours, people cling to survival with every ounce of strength that they can muster. Mankind repeatedly tests our will-to-live by means of genocides, slavery, and other disgusting forms of ignorant humiliation and destruction of our fellow man. During these desperate times, those who are repressed find themselves in hopeless situations, teetering on the brink of a physical and/or psychological collapse, seek out salvations. These saving graces, whether real or imagined, in many situations, are nothing more than symbols of release; they serve no true means of salvation but act as nothing more than a “safety net”. Desperate desire creates sometime false hopes. Like a child using a teddy bear for companionship or a blanket to ward off monsters, desperate people create empty protectors to serve as a means to salvation. In Narrative of the Life, Frederick Douglas illustrates such a case in point; when an ordinary object of no importance, becomes of symbol of survival. The root held in his back pocket is the origin of a great awakening of strength in a slave who is on the verge of breakdown. The root harnesses the strength of Frederick Douglass to rise against his slave handlers and leads him to find the might to begin his search for freedom. Why did Frederick Douglass choose a root to be the item that served as the entry way to his freedom? What does it mean to the author and to the African slave? Frederick Douglass’ choice of the root to be the protector against his slaveholder served as a symbol of spiritual redemption and a source of strength to the person who wielded it, but also, root tapped into the folklore of the African slave, inspiring every slave to strive for personal freedom.
The root that Sandy gives Douglass to carry in his right side pocket is meant to be a protector against the whippings and beatings of the white man. Sandy claims to Douglass that the root has guarded him from multiple punishes and has never let him down. At first, Douglass feels that this action is pointless, however, Sandy convinces the skeptic that it cannot hurt to try it:
“He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of the root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with such earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good” (959).
The root is given to Douglass as a symbol of friendship and comfort from an apathetic slave. Many slaves found their strength in religious study and practice; living in hopelessness, they turned to Christianity to look for a means to peace and freedom. The root symbolizes this power of belief in a slave. Given to him on a Saturday night, Frederick Douglass tests the abilities of the root the next morning which happens to be a Sunday, the Lord’s day. When he is confronted by his slave holder, he is not reprimanded for his ill deeds but is instead told to tend to the pigs, while his master continues to church. The root in this scene symbolizes the protective power of God, to both the slave and the slave master. It is God’s graces that Douglass’ overseer does not beat him as he walks to church; the ill tempered man’s own spirituality protects the slave just as much as the slave’s own belief. Therefore, God’s way protects both the physicality of the slave as well as the soul of the slave keeper; symbolized by the root in Douglass’ pocket.
From a formalists’ standpoint, it is important to document what a root is. A root is the nourishing center of a plant. Roots absorb the water out of the ground that give a plant life. The root that Douglass carried in his back pocket serves the same purpose. The root has the ability to pull the same nourishment out of nothingness and feed it to the person who wields it. The same way that a plant grows from the ground, the root in Douglass’ back pocket gives him the power to lift himself to a prone state against his slave handlers and find the ability to stand on his own. “—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose” (960). The rising action of Douglass is similar to that of a plant rising from the ground; it represents the nourishment of life and the strength of his resolve. Also, Douglass uses the word “rose” to describe his actions; another plant reference that continues a formalists observation of the root.
If Frederick Douglass wanted to capture the essence of the rising action of the American Slave, why would he choose a root to be the symbol of a great protector? “John the Conqueroo” is a term that is used in 20th century southern blues music. To a southern bluesman, “John the Conqueroo” is used to describe a person who refuses to be brought down by hardship; a man who cannot be broken by the powers that be (PBS). Willie Dixon, a legendary bluesman of the south, in his infamous song “Hootchie Cootchie Man” tapped into an old slave folktale when he sang:
“I am John the Conqueroo/I’m gonna mess wit’ you.”
Dixon was referencing the African slave’s folktale of a hero named John the Conqueror. According to African slave folklore, John the Conqueror was one of the first African slaves brought to the New World and the son of an African king. When the slaves were unloaded from his slave ship at the port of Charleston, SC, John the Conqueror refused to stand on the slave blocks. He never let himself be subservient to his masters and, even when he was put into captivity, would often outwit and outfox his masters. To the African slave, John the Conqueror was a folk hero, a man who existed in reality and in fantasy; his story passed from plantation to plantation as slaves were moved around the south. He was an inspiration to the imprisoned people of Africa. The John the Conqueror Root grows fluently throughout the northern hemisphere and flourishes throughout the southeast of the United States. The slaves of the American south named the root and claimed that the root could ward off evil. It is easy to assume that the John the Conqueror root was known to Frederick Douglass, the story of the plant’s namesake must have been a source of inspiration to the ex-slave during the penning of his autobiography. So the image the root goes beyond the mere symbology of strength and nourishment in the spiritual and physical world; it is also a representation of the folktales that united the American slave. Douglass’ story of the magical root in his back pocket must have struck a chord with those who read his story, summoning the power of inspiration in the white readers equal to the tale of the slave descended from royalty who refused to bend to the cracking of his master’s whip did to the imprisoned.
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life is one of the most inspiring American stories to ever have been written. The writing serves as a cherished symbol of the struggles of the African slave and the resolve of mankind’s ability to overcome great obstacles and shortcomings; its words still ripple to the social ills of today. The story still possesses the power to evoke tears from the reader and emotes the greatness of Douglass and will until the end of time. But no image of the writing is more powerful than the first time Frederick Douglass defends himself against the slave masters who are so close to beating him both physical and psychologically. It is the image of the slave rising up and reinstalling his sense of humanity and pride by stopping the hand of his repressors that can be used by everyone on this planet who feels beaten by society. It is the root in Douglass’ right side pocket that protects him from his captors. Frederick Douglass tapped into the very essence of human strength, the power of spirituality and the folktales of the African slave, when he placed a simple root into the right-side pocket, the day he rose.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: The Shorter Sixth Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2005. 942-973.
“The Delta Blues.” The History of Rock and Roll. Narr. Steven Tyler &Gary Busey. Dir. David R. Axelrod. PBS. Originally Aired: September 17, 1999.